Elkhart, IN (ProPublica) – When Ed Windbigler was suspended last month as the police chief in Elkhart, Indiana, his No. 2, Todd Thayer, became the Police Department’s public face, appearing at a town hall meeting, before a civilian oversight commission and on the radio.
In each setting, Thayer defended the department — the “thin blue line” protecting law-abiding citizens from “predators” and “all the other garbage” — and attacked the media, with references to “tabloid” journalism and “ambush reporting.”
On Monday, Windbigler resigned under pressure from Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese, who said he wants “new leadership” after reports by the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica about how Windbigler minimized the beating of a handcuffed man. The news organizations have also reported that Windbigler repeatedly promoted officers with disciplinary histories. Efforts to reach Windbigler for comment have been unsuccessful.
In charge, at least for now, will be Thayer. He has been dismissive of the news coverage that led to Windbigler’s exit, and has a disciplinary record that includes a five-day suspension and seven reprimands. In 2013, Thayer was demoted two ranks, from lieutenant to corporal, for making “inappropriate comments” about a fatal shooting by police. He said an officer who opened fire could now check that off his “bucket list,” according to disciplinary records. During an internal investigation, Thayer acknowledged the “bucket list” comment but said he was joking.
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Neese said the mayor will consider “all qualified applicants” for the job, not specifying his preference for internal or external candidates. But interviews with three members of Elkhart’s city council revealed a divide in opinion on what steps Neese should take next.
The president of Elkhart’s city council, Brian Dickerson, said he believes Windbigler should not have been forced out — and that he hopes the next chief comes from inside the department. “You have a lot of really good officers down there, but now they have no leader,” Dickerson said. “The mayor essentially took that leader from them, that they had some faith in, in order to rebuild.”
Another council member, David Henke, said: “We do not have good leadership in the Police Department. Thayer has already proven himself to be a non-leader. He should not be acting chief.”
A third council member, Dwight Fish, said he believes Thayer “can hold things together” as interim chief, but lacks the administrative skills needed for the permanent job. Fish said of the mayor: “He has to go outside this Police Department to pick a chief that will come in, knock some heads around and get the department organized and focused on their job. If he hires from within, there will be no respect for this Police Department, period.”
Thayer could not be reached through the Police Department this week. Lt. Travis Snider, a department spokesman, wrote in an email Wednesday that Thayer is declining to do any interviews. “Chief Thayer wants to wait until a new Chief is named and takes over before any comments on any topics are given from the Police Department,” Snider wrote.
A statement released a day earlier by the Police Department said: “Until a replacement is named as chief, the Elkhart Police Department is committed to providing professional police services to our citizens and our community. We will learn from the past while continuing to focus on the future.”
Windbigler’s 30-day suspension, issued in November, traced to his handling of a beating in the police station’s detention area. In a scene caught on video, two officers punched a handcuffed man in the face. After the Tribune, working with ProPublica, requested a copy of that footage, the two officers were charged in November with misdemeanor battery and placed on administrative leave. Before then, Windbigler had opted to limit the officers’ punishment to a written reprimand. He had also downplayed the misconduct to a civilian oversight commission, saying the two officers had gone “a little overboard,” while saying nothing of the punches thrown.
Neese suspended Windbigler in part for “understating the severity” of the misconduct to the commission.
On Monday, before Windbigler’s resignation was announced, Thayer appeared before that same oversight group, the Police Merit Commission. Speaking about a case in which Windbigler promoted an officer with a recent drunken driving conviction — without notifying the commission, which must approve such moves — Thayer said, “We have never as an administration done anything to keep anything from this board.”
The officer’s promotion to detective — and the department’s decision to not discipline him, even after he pleaded guilty to drunken driving — was reported last week by the Tribune and ProPublica. Thayer told the commission the promotion had “slipped through the cracks.”
“That was an error on our part, and despite what you read or may see in the tabloids, it wasn’t a purposeful action by the Police Department to keep this promotion from you,” Thayer said.
Without offering any specifics, Thayer also questioned the actions of police in Noblesville, Indiana, where the officer had been arrested last year: “e question the whole process down there about how that arrest took place. … I’m not disputing that he has a conviction. I’m disputing the process of how that took place.”
The commission on Monday approved the officer’s promotion after little discussion. A Police Department spokesman has said the officer would not speak to reporters.
Last month, the Tribune and ProPublica reported that 28 of the Police Department’s 34 supervisors had disciplinary records. Fifteen had been suspended, including Windbigler, Thayer and the patrol captain. Three supervisors had been convicted of crimes during their careers.
Since that report, Thayer has defended the police and criticized media coverage while appearing in various forums.
At a town hall on Nov. 20, Thayer accused the news organizations of “ambush reporting” for calling officers to seek comment and ask questions about their disciplinary histories. “I mean, you’re going to ambush my officers like that? That’s ridiculous,” Thayer said. At the meeting, a public forum hosted by the mayor, Thayer asked audience members to remember the police while saying their Thanksgiving blessings. Police officers, he said, are out there “serving you that you that you can have a peaceful meal at your table.”
“The thin blue line is that line of officers that keeps the predators and the sex offenders and all the other garbage from all these law-abiding citizens. We’re the final stopgap. And that’s falling apart,” he said. “I fear for this country, I fear for my son. … Folks — we’re falling. We need you to help pick us up, dust us off, and say go out there and do your job, we got your back.”
This month, Thayer appeared on a talk radio program on 95.3 MNC, in northern Indiana.
“This type of attack has to stop,” Thayer said of media coverage of the police.
Addressing the three supervisors with criminal records, Thayer said: “Just like any other citizen, we’re all human, we all make mistakes. … To think that we’re, you know, free from making mistakes out there is totally untrue. You know until they invite or they devise a button on our belt that we can push and go into robot mode and not be affected by all the stuff that we see on the road, and, you know, see the carnage and the suffering that’s out there and the evil that we fight every day, you know, to say that that we can’t be human is, is totally unfair.”
“If you study history … how many of the great leaders have had a flawless record in their past?” Thayer said. “You know, you look at from Patton to whoever, you know they’ve fallen, they’ve gone down the ladder, and they’ve gone back up.”
Thayer, who joined the Elkhart Police Department in 1991, said Windbigler had improved the department’s morale and staffing, and “is one of the best chiefs I’ve ever served with, if not the best.”
In 2007, while a sergeant, Thayer was disciplined for an episode in which police took suggestive photos of a woman waiting in the police station lobby for a ride. A corporal resigned, a safety officer was fired and six other officers, including Thayer, received five-day suspensions. Thayer was faulted for failing “to make an official report” of the improper behavior, according to disciplinary records. The police chief ordered him to get ethics training.
Thayer has also been reprimanded seven times based on findings that include neglect of duty and insubordination.
At the town hall meeting last month, Thayer said: “You think you know me by reading a couple pages in my personnel file? Do you know that I’m a father, a husband, brother, parent, an uncle, that I’ve dedicated 27 years of my life to this city?”